The NFL’s regular season has come to a close. Out of the 32 teams who started in September, only 12 remain, with just three or four games standing between them and the Vince Lombardi Trophy. As we near Super Bowl 50, now is the time for any team with real ambitions of winning the title to step up and make a name for themselves:
American Football Conference
(6) Pittsburgh Steelers (10-6)
The Steelers are tipped by many to perform a lot better than their seeding would suggest. They have an explosive offense that has the ability to turn a game on its head in just a few plays. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown have had a great QB-WR partnership this season, even if it has led to quite a few interceptions. The Steelers will have to show this aerial prowess in the Wild Card Round, as they are expected to be without their usual running back, DeAngelo Williams. Despite their defense being only slightly above-average, Pittsburgh’s good team spirit, coupled with a first round game against a team that have fallen at the first hurdle for the past four years, suggest that this is a team that have a chance to cause some damage.
(5) Kansas City Chiefs (11-5)
When you start the season 1-5, isn’t it time to give up? The Chiefs didn’t, and after winning 10 straight games they’ve found themselves as the only team other than the Cincinnati Bengals in 1970 to make the postseason from such a position. They’ve gotten there in no small part thanks to their excellent defense, which has allowed an average of only 17.9 points per game all season – a figure 3rd after only Seattle and Cincinnati. Alex Smith has had a solid season, and also has the benefit of looking like the better QB in their playoff opener. On the other hand, the team’s offense tends to cool down a lot in the second half of games, and KC will have to do a better job of protecting Smith. When their good run will end remains to be seen, but this is a team that have a good shot at reaching the Divisional Round at least.
(4) Houston Texans (9-7)
Kansas City aren’t the only team that are going into the playoffs on the back of a good run of form – the Texans have come in having won seven of their last nine. Despite this, their offense is distinctly … below average. They’ve worked their way through five different QBs this year, and now are back to the man who started the season, Brian Hoyer. In the absence of many great performances on the offensive side of the ball (the team is averaging a little over 21 points a game), it’s been up to the defense to fight their way through, and fight their way through they have. The Texans have conceded the 3rd least yards in the NFL – quite an impressive feat. JJ Watt leads the charge for the defensive unit. It remains to be seen how it’ll be weakened by the loss of Pro Bowl LT Duane Brown, who suffered a knee injury and will be absent for the playoffs. Having never lost a home playoff game, it’ll be interesting to see if the Texans can maintain that record against a Chiefs side they’re expected to lose to.
(3) Cincinnati Bengals (12-4)
When it comes to falling at the first hurdle in the playoffs, the Bengals sure know what they’re doing. You’d have to go back to 1991 to find the last playoff win for Cincinnati. Cincinnati may also have a problem in their playoff opener: Andy Dalton, their first choice QB, is probably still going to be out with a thumb injury. If that’s the case, AJ McCarron will get the nod instead. This isn’t the end of the world – McCarron did start two National Championship Games whilst in college – but it certainly isn’t how the Bengals will want to start out. Of course, if Cincy’s defense can get on the board a few times, as they’ve excelled at this season, it might lessen the blow of their QB issue. They host a tough Pittsburgh side to open, but if they should come out with a win and get Andy Dalton back in time for the Divisional Round, maybe they could give the Pats a run for their money.
(2) New England Patriots (12-4)
What would the NFL Playoffs be without the almost ever-present New England Patriots? Unsurprisingly, the reigning Super Bowl Champions are back and looking to defend their title, although they’ll be hoping for a little less controversy in this campaign. The Pats are one of the bookies’ favourites to go all the way again, but they also struggled at the end of the season, losing to the New York Jets and the mediocre Miami Dolphins. This may be down to injuries though, and with New England expecting many of those players to be back in time for the Playoffs, there is little reason for fans to be too concerned. However, losing the top seed may come back to haunt them: the road to Levi’s Stadium may now have to run through Denver, instead of Foxboro where the Pats play so well in front of their home crowd. With Bill Belichick and Tom Brady leading a much healthier team than that of the past two weeks, a successful title defence is certainly plausible; although if the team loses a few key players, their playoff campaign (and potentially the game balls) may well fall flat.
(1) Denver Broncos (12-4)
Having snuck into the top spot in the final week, the Broncos are looking forward to another playoff run. The Broncos have the best ranked defense in the NFL – which is quite something given that only four defensive players have started every game this season – and their offense is no joke either. There’s a lot of uncertainty about who will be taking snaps for Denver in their playoff opener: do they start the experienced Peyton Manning who’s just returned from injury, or do they start the younger Brock Osweiler who did such a good job covering for him. The Broncos will certainly be hoping to avoid the sixth-seed Steelers, who they fell to 34-27 just before Christmas. Even if they do face Pittsburgh, Denver still have a very good chance of making it to the AFC Championship, which they would host. While I wouldn’t choose the Broncos as favourites for the AFC crown, they certainly can’t be counted out of the race to Super Bowl 50.
National Football Conference
(6) Seattle Seahawks (10-6)
The Seahawks are probably the team that nobody wants to face right now. Even the almost-invincible Carolina Panthers. Even the Green Bay Packers, who some have suggested may not have given 100% against Minnesota in the final week just to avoid Seattle. And who can blame them? Russell Wilson is absolutely tearing it up right now. He’s scored 24 touchdowns in the last seven games, whilst throwing only one interception. This kind of form is almost (if not actually) unprecedented. Once again, Seattle’s defense, also known as the ‘Legion of Boom’, has played phenomenally. A lot of people are touting the Seahawks to beat Minnesota, but the road will get a lot tougher from there as they’d have to travel to Carolina and very possibly NFC West rivals Arizona. It won’t be impossible, but the odds are stacked against the Seahawks making a third successive Super Bowl appearance.
(5) Green Bay Packers (10-6)
Green Bay have made the playoffs in each of the past six seasons, and they’ll be back in the mix once again. After a home-loss to their rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, the Pack find themselves facing a trip to Washington to face the Redskins. It won’t be too easy for them – their offense has been struggling a lot this year with Eddie Lacy providing very little to the running game, whilst the loss of Jordy Nelson to injury in the preseason has left a fair gap in the Packers’ receiving unit. Aaron Rodgers is a undoubtedly a great QB, but he cannot be expected to make up for these offensive shortcomings alone. The defense is also decent, but that still won’t make up for the countless offensive drives that just seem to stall. This season, Green Bay have played three away games against teams which have made the playoffs, and they’ve lost all three. They may win one game, but it would be quite surprising if they get beyond that.
(4) Washington Redskins (9-7)
America’s favourite politically-incorrectly named team are in the NFL Playoffs for the first time since 2012. They’ll be facing the Packers at home, and unlike their adversaries they’ll be going into the postseason with an offense that looks like it’s found a rhythm. Kirk Cousins, playing in the QB position ahead of former Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III, has played almost flawlessly since Week 10. Supported by DeSean Jackson and Jordan Reed, Cousins leads an offense that has won four straight games. The defense have given up an awful lot of yards, but they’ve managed to hold their opponents to a fairly average number of points. This Redskins team probably won’t blow you away, but they do have a decent chance to win on their home field against Green Bay.
(3) Minnesota Vikings (11-5)
The Vikings – fresh off of snatching the NFC North crown out of their arch-rival’s hands – will be looking forward to hosting a tough Seattle side. The Vikings’ biggest star is undoubtedly Adrian Peterson, who won his 1st career NFL Rushing Triple Crown this season (he led the NFL in number of runs, touchdowns and yards gained). The Vikings will hope that their defense, which struggled last time out against Seattle thanks to several injuries, will be much stronger this time around. Their defense certainly isn’t bad – they’ve only given up the 5th most points in the NFL – but there are definitely some doubts as to whether they’ll be good enough to stop someone who’s surely on the best hot streak in the league right now. The Vikings will just have to hope that the temperature, which is forecast to reach a high of -17 degrees Celsius, will cool Wilson down for long enough to pick up the upset.
(2) Arizona Cardinals (13-3)
The Cardinals go into the playoffs on a low note, having lost their final game to Seattle by a more than convincing margin. That said, the Cardinals are considered favourites for the Super Bowl by ESPN’s Football Power Index, and the Las Vegas bookmakers have them as co-favourites with the Patriots. It isn’t any surprise that they feel this way. Carson Palmer’s offense has been absolutely outstanding this season, and are ranked 1st in the NFL. The defense, led by notable cornerback Patrick Peterson and nicknamed the “no fly zone”, has also performed very well. This team is certainly a beatable one, and they looked quite appalling in their last game. Yet if they can regroup themselves, which I’m certain Bruce Arians will ensure they will, the Cardinals will be legitimate contenders for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
(1) Carolina Panthers (15-1)
Once upon a time (from 2010-2012 to be precise), the Panthers were a team that enjoyed back-to-back-to-back losing seasons. But, that isn’t what the team in Carolina looks like now. After a disappointing 7-8-1 season last year, which still saw the Panthers make the playoffs as the champions of a weak NFC South, MVP-favourite Cam Newton has led the charge on a team that went undefeated longer than any other this season. The Panthers don’t have quite the same explosive offense that Arizona possess, and their defenses are fairly similar in quality, yet the Panthers have found a way to grind out results and have won 15 of their 16 games. Some may say that the Panthers have caught teams at their weaker times, but as the saying goes, ‘you can only beat what’s put in front of you’. A genuine contender who knows how to make the most of home field advantage, the Panthers are a force to be reckoned with.